For fans of Bill Murray’s brand of smartass humour (seen in Ghostbusters, Caddyshack, etc), Stripes is a must-watch. Additionally, if you’re a fan of classic ’80s comedies, you cannot afford to miss Stripes. Hell, if you have a sense of humour, then you definitely have to watch Stripes. Directed by Ivan Reitman (Animal House, Kindergarten Cop) and starring the likes of Murray, Harold Ramis, John Candy, Warren Oates and even Judge Reinhold, this is primo ’80s comedy entertainment. Admittedly, there are pacing problems and the comedy is at times hit and miss, but Stripes packs one hell of a wallop whenever it does hit, resulting in an American comedy highlight of the 1980s and an eminently quotable “bloke movie”.
At the beginning of the film, irresponsible goof John Winger (Murray) loses his job, his girlfriend, his car and his apartment…all in the course of a few hours. He’s in dire need of discipline and he needs to get in shape, so he convinces his best friend Russell (Ramis) that they should enlist in the United States Army. At boot camp, they find themselves surrounded by a bunch of similar misfits, including druggie Elmo (Reinhold) and the overweight Ox (Candy), just to name a couple. Suffice it to say, it isn’t long before smartass John gets on the wrong side of the platoon’s drill sergeant (Oates)…
Stripes literally feels like two movies rolled into one. The “first movie” tells the story about basic training wherein John Winger and his comrades wreak havoc on the army base in side-splitting ways. The “second movie” is the sequel which picks up right after basic training, when the group is shipped off to Italy for a military mission, culminating in an extended climax depicting John, Russell and their girlfriends invading Czechoslovakia to save the rest of their platoon. While the fusion of these two stories is decent enough, the “second film” is too long, and could have been strengthened with tighter editing and better writing. It’s not altogether bad, but the energy and wit of the “first film” is seriously lacking, with laughs becoming too scattershot. It’s as if the writers of the “first movie” were jettisoned for the “sequel”, and their replacements were vastly inferior. As a whole the film is still worth seeing, but, with a stronger second half, Stripes could have been a bona fide home run.
A lot of the creative forces behind National Lampoon’s Animal House reunited to work on Stripes. While Animal House took place at a school and Stripes has a military backdrop, the basic premise is similar: underdog losers vs. the establishment. It may be a formulaic premise, but Stripes works because it contains many quotable lines and classic scenes. Take, for instance, the opening, which cuts between John driving a cab and Russell teaching English to immigrants. These sequences are funny by themselves, but the results are eye-wateringly hilarious when they’re intercut. Additionally, whereas most contemporary comedies are made by sitcom directors and unremarkable studio puppets, Stripes was created by consummate professionals. The cinematographer, for instance, was Bill Butler, who also shot The Godfather, Deliverance, Jaws and Grease. Elmer Bernstein, meanwhile, composed the music. Prior to Stripes, Bernstein also scored such films as Airplane!, True Grit and The Great Escape. This is the biggest difference between something like Stripes and something more modern like Happy Gilmore – both are silly, sure, but Stripes is fondly remembered decades later because it looks and feels like a real film.
Billy Murray is in top comedic form as John Winger – the script provided an idyllic playground in which the star could do his trademark smartass shtick. Murray reportedly did a lot of improvising on the set, to the extent that nobody ever knew what he was going to do next. (His hilarious background story, including the whole “making it with a cow” and “Hulka is our big toe”, was improvised by Murray.) Also terrific is Murray’s on-screen relationship with Harold Ramis. The two are an excellent comedic duo, with the rather more sensible Ramis providing an ideal foil for Murray. A lot of big laughs also come as a result of Murray’s confrontations with the hard-nosed Warren Oates. The rest of the cast, meanwhile, is full of great names. There’s the late, great John Candy as Ox, the amusing Judge Reinhold (in his first movie role) as Elmo, and the beautiful pair of P.J. Soles and Sean Young as military policewomen who become involved with John and Russell.
For its home video release, an extended edition of Stripes was released containing 18 minutes of previously excised footage. Considering that the theatrical cut in itself feels a bit too long in the tooth, the extended edition only exasperates the problem, and the additions aren’t overly valuable despite a few extra laughs here and there. Stick with the theatrical cut, though fans of the film will want to investigate the extra footage purely out of curiosity. In final analysis, Stripes is a terrific relic from the golden era of ’80s comedy, and it is definitely worth checking out.